Saturday, January 13, 2007

Interpreter of Maladies

My sister, the librarian, tries to read all the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels (this, in addition to her quest to see all the "Best Picture" Oscar winners). I've always thought that admirable, but never had any urge. Perhaps I feared the books would be too obtuse? Well, after reading Interpreter of Maladies, I could change my mind. This debut collection of short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri won a bunch of prizes, including the 2000 Pulitzer for fiction.

After reading one per night, I enjoyed each and every story so much that I'm not sure I could name a favorite. The title story is set in the state of Orissa in India, where I spent much of my time when I was there three years ago. The couple travel to the sun temple in Konarak, which I was lucky to visit, and the story brought back memories.

But even if you have not been to India, Lahiri's stories can take you there--or to the minds of her usually Indian-American characters. My friend Jenny (who is starting an international book group that meets at a restaurant of the setting of the book--I would have loved to discuss this over a samosa!) said the first story, "A Temporary Matter," really struck her. It's about a young couple having marital trouble (and infertility, of course! I can't get away from it!)

If I had to pick my favorite, it would be "This Blessed House," about the Indian couple who disagree about what to do with all the tacky Christian images and tchotchkes they keep finding in their new house. It portrays the tension between two people just starting to live together, but also this young woman's (named Twinkle) openness to whatever happens. "Each day is like a treasure hunt!" she tells a friend. The ending is bittersweet (like most in the book) and you're not clear if this couple is going to make it. But the fact that the house seems to be "blessed" bodes well, I think.

After enjoying this so much, I think I'll put Lahiri's novel The Namesake on my list.

I'm back!

When I last posted in July that I was reading a very long book, I bet you didn't think it would take me six months to read it! Well, it didn't, but that's how long I've been away from my poor little book blog. Obviously it was a little too ambitious starting four blogs at once.

Next week I plan to switch to the Blogger formerly known as Beta and will incorporate Spiritual Decorator into Spiritual Knitter, which has become my main blog and where I post all things creative in my life. Dear Sam and Sophie will continue until Sam and Sophie are home, and--as one of my new year's resolutions--I'm going to try to keep track of my reader here at Spiritual Bookworm.

In the next few weeks, I'll be playing catch-up, posting my thoughts (if I can remember them) on the few books of note that I've read in the past six months. (To be honest, I've read a lot of mindless mysteries.) Finally, my sister--who's not that into knitting and crafts but who loves to read--will find something of interest!

Monday, July 17, 2006

One long book

Dear readers (if there is more than one of you!), I haven't forsaken this site. In addition to doing a lot of reading for work, I'm in the middle of an extremely long, 700+ pages book: The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. It's good, but I've got about 300 more pages to go.

Meanwhile, all the good books I got at the library a few weeks ago are due and I haven't started any of them yet.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Books for Sophie

I'm starting a list of good books for our daughter from China:

* Beyond the Great Mountains: A Visual Poem About China by Ed Young (Chronicle, 2005)

Sunday, June 18, 2006

"Cherry Cheesecake Murder" by Joanne Fluke (Kensington, 2006)

I've already confessed my addiction to light murder mysteries, so I might as well go all the way and admit that some of my favorites are what the book biz calls "cozys," I guess because they're not too scary. And I have a particular penchant for the many series that pair the mystery story with recipes (or even craft and knitting patterns.)

After I finished the whole series (so far) by Diane Mott Davidson, I found a similar series by Joanne Fluke, featuring Minnesota baker Hannah Swensen. This summer I read her newest one, Cherry Cheesecake Murder. Although I'm starting to tire of the love triangle after several books of that same storyline, I still like the stories and the series.

And, as a huge cheesecake lover, I enjoyed reading the recipes, including one for cheesecake made with mayonnaise. But to be honest, I've never tried any of them, since they're all for baked goods and I probably gain a few pounds just reading them. If you want to try them, visit her site,, which has a few recipes as well as info about the author and her writing.

"Blood Ties" by Ralph McInerny (St. Martin's, 2005)

If you're not too young to remember the "Father Dowling" television series, perhaps you will be surprised to learn that the author of the books that prompted the show is still writing them. I've never met Ralph McInerny, who taught philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. But I started reading his mystery novels after a brief summer internship at an extremely conservative Catholic magazine where he was publisher.

The Father Dowling mysteries are set in Chicago (McInerny has another series set at Notre Dame) and feature recurring characters. I find his novels to have too many characters: he loves to give lots of background on even minor ones, which I find confusing. But I was annoyed by Blood Ties for more substantial reasons.

The plot revolves around an adoption: a 23-year-old woman decides to search for her birthmother. Meanwhile, her birthfather, who abandoned the birthmother at the birth, now wants to claim his long-lost daughter. He ends up dead and assorted family members, lawyers, detectives, other peripheral characters, and, of course, Father Dowling all get involved in trying to solve the murder--and to figure out who the birthmother is.

The mystery is mildly engaging though convoluted, but the language and storyline around the adoption is positively antiquated and offensive. As someone with experience in many sides of adoption, I find it unbelievable that a book written in this day and age still uses the inaccurate and offensive terms "real" mother and "give up" for adoption. Birthmothers or biological mothers are no more "real" than adoptive mothers (in fact, one could argue that adoptive mothers are children's "real" mothers), and birthmothers (and sometimes birthfathers) make adoption plans for their children, they don't "give them up" like some inanimate object.

And the antiquated underlying plot--that both the birthmother and the adoptive family would do anything to prevent either the secret of the adoption from becoming public or the birthmother and child from meeting--is dangerous and frankly becoming uncomon in an era when nearly all adoptions (domestic ones, at least) are open.

Since he sneaks in his editorializing about the birthmother's virtue for not choosing to abort when she becomes pregnant in college, I suspect McInerny (known for directing the conservative Jacques Maritain Center at ND) sees this plot as "prolife." It's nothing of the sort. He has done a major disservice to all those involved in adoption who have tried to correct the image of this choice as sordid. Birthparents, adoptive parents, and adoptees should all protest this and other books like it.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

My to-read list

* Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies by Jared Diamond (Norton)

* Alligators, Old Mink & New Money: One Woman's Adventures in Vintage Clothing by Allison Houtte and Melissa Houtte (Morrow, 2005)

* A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents edited by Pamela Kruger and Jill Smolowe (Riverhead, 2005)

* Size 12 Is Not Fat: A Heather Wells Mystery by Meg Cabot (Avon, 2005)

* Beyond Good Intentions: A Mother Reflects on Raising Internationally Adopted Children by Cheri Register (Yeong & Yeong, 2005)

* Have Your Cake and Kill Him Too: A Blackbird Sisters Mystery by Nancy Martin (NAL, 2005)

* Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan (Putnam, 2005)

* Rusty Nail: a Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels Mystery by J.A. Konrath (Hyperiorn, 2006)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Spiritual decorator reviews "Trading Spaces"

If you haven't visited my decorating blog lately, I've posted my opinion on the the Trading Spaces $100 to $1,000 Makeover book. In a nutshell: it's a better show than a book. I should stick to TV for decorating info, and reading for pleasure and escape.

Monday, May 29, 2006

"The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold (Little, Brown, 2002)

The Lovely Bones is the best book I've read in a long time. It sat on my shelf for several years, because I knew it would be difficult to read. And it was. In fact, I haven't read this vivid of a depiction of grief since Jacquelyn Mitchard's Deep End of the Ocean. I read that book in Mexico; I took this one to France. Maybe I need to leave the confines of home to read stories that are this hard, though they both were ultimately hopeful and redemptive.

The story is told from the persepective of 14-year-old Susie Salmon, whose brutal rape and murder we learn of in the first chapter. But that isn't as emotionally gut-wrenching as are the stories of the people she leaves behind, especially her parents and two siblings. The book follows them in the years after her death and portrays their grief in such haunting accuracy that anyone who's suffered that level of loss will be brought back to the immediacy of their own grieving.

In the Lucky Bones, Siebold (the author of the memoir Lucky, which also deals with rape) describes heaven, where Susie gets anything she desires, whether it's fashion magazines or dogs. The only thing she can't get is to go back to earth and join her family. And it's this longing that keeps her from the "higher level" of heaven. She watches helplessly as her family falls apart (as in Deep End, the parents' marriage breaks apart after the loss of a child).

In the end, it is Susie's inability to let go that keeps her locked in this "purgatory" of sorts. How she escapes that is rather unbelievable (the ending is pretty fantastic, even for fantasy), but it does provide a hopeful, redemptive resolution not only for Susie, but for her family and friends.

The title refers not to the never-found body of the murdered Susie but to the connections-- "sometimes tenuous, sometimes made at great cost, but often magnificent--that happened after I was gone. " These "lovely bones that had grown around my absence" forced Susie to "see things in a way that let me hold the world without me in it. The events that my death wrought were merely the bones of a body that would become whole at some unpredictable time in the future. The price of what I came to see as this miraculous body had been my life."

In the end, as her family gathers to celebrate a new beginning, Susie wonders if this is what she had been waiting for: "for my family to come home, not to me anymore but to one another with me gone. "

Sebold writes beautifully about grief but even more beautifully about the new life that can come out of it. Her depection of heaven may not turn out to be accurate, but her description of grief, loss, and new life certainly are.